04/24/2003 11:00PM

Everything you wanted to know about the Derby. . .*


NEW YORK - There are four little words that the modern horseplayer seems terrified to utter in relation to a Kentucky Derby. They seem like a white flag of surrender, a confession of failure, an admission that the speaker is utterly lacking in imagination, cleverness, adventurousness, and perhaps basic intelligence.

Yet the more this horseplayer contemplates Saturday's 129th Derby, the more they sound like the right four words for this year. Call me a chalk-eating coward, but I just can't help it:

I like the favorite.

Such an admission is nearly grounds for expulsion from the fraternity of handicappers nowadays. Everyone's a wise guy, a contrarian, looking for obscure reasons to like arcane runners at double-digit prices. What's the fun in picking the favorite when you get a small payoff for being right and feel like a sap and a sheep if you're wrong?

Marrying yourself to the Derby favorite has been a recipe for divorce and bankruptcy for the last 25 years. Only two of those 25 have won: Spectacular Bid in 1979 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. A $2 bet on each public choice would have run you $50 and gotten you back a whopping $9.80, an 80.4 percent loss on your investment. For that kind of performance, you might as well play the stock market.

By my count, I have picked the favorite in only four of those 25 years - Alydar in 1978, the Bid the next year, Chief's Crown in 1984, and Easy Goer in 1989. I tried to be a smart aleck the other 21 times. In general, this is probably the way to go. Favorites lose two-thirds of the time in all of racing, and the Derby has higher potential for chaos than almost any other race of the year, since the field is so large and the surface and distance are new for so many.

It becomes almost mandatory to oppose a tepid favorite in the race. A year ago, Harlan's Holiday and Came Home were clearly nice horses but had posted unimpressive final and finishing times in their preps. Odds of even 6-1 seemed too short.

So why take 8-5 or less on Empire Maker? It's certainly not a bonanza of value. Even if he ends up in the Hall of Fame, it would be hard to look back and say that based on what we know today, a $5.20 mutuel was the steal of the century. Too many things can go wrong.

Here's the other side of the argument: Sometimes we make the game more complicated than it needs to be. There's a fine line between healthy skepticism and mulish stubbornness. Sometimes it's obvious who the best horse is, and best horse wins more than sometimes. The Derby winner ends up becoming the 3-year-old champion about half the time. It's not that the Derby is a lottery, but that the best horse often hasn't revealed himself until Derby Day.

This year, he already has.

Empire Maker won his debut going a mile and went right into stakes company. Running third in the Remsen in his second career start, in a race won by Toccet and contested over a strongly speed-biased track, was no disgrace. Nor was a second in the Sham Stakes in his following start.

At that point there may well have been a gap between Empire Maker's reputation and his accomplishments, and it was time for him to step up his game and deliver on his potential. The blinkers went on and the colt responded, winning the Florida Derby by daylight and the Wood Memorial by a clearly measured half-length. He's a good horse, and based on what we have seen from all his likely opponents, he's the best horse in this Derby field.

You don't have to like the price but it's hard to knock anything about the colt. His pedigree - by Unbridled out of four-time Grade 1 producer Toussaud - is flawless and built for classic distances. Trainer Bobby Frankel and jockey Jerry Bailey have each won three straight Eclipse Awards as the best in the business. Empire Maker has both the tactical speed to avoid traffic in a bulky field and a strong finish for the new territory of a 10th furlong. He had a relatively easy final prep, and has plenty of room for advancement with only five career starts behind him.

There are 1,000 ways to lose a Kentucky Derby, but he's supposed to win this one.

Still, given recent history, I feel as if I should find the church basement where the next meeting of Chalk-Eaters Anonymous is being held, pour a cup of black coffee and light an unfiltered cigarette, then bravely step to the podium and confess: My name is Steve and, yes, I like the favorite.